Someone voting via ballot box

Tuesday, November 8 will be Election Day in the United States, and this year we will vote in the midterm elections. Many congressmen will be up for re-election, as well as senators and governors, mayors, state legislators, and local government officials across the country. We are familiar with how voting works in the U.S.—when we vote, how we vote, who we vote for—but do you know what voting is like in other countries around the world?

For starters, the United States is rather unique in that it schedules its election day on a weekday, let alone a Tuesday. According to the Pew Research Center, of the thirty-six nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is one of nine that votes on a week day, and one of seven that doesn’t designate Election Day a national holiday.

Some countries, about 27 of them, make voting compulsory. In Australia, all citizens of age are required to vote, and if they fail to do so, they face fines. Other countries may only require it of certain people, and otherwise make it voluntary for others. For example, in Ecuador, only literate citizens between 18 and 65 are required to vote; those over 65 or who are not literate are not required. In Switzerland, only one canton requires voting; it is voluntary in all other cantons of that country.

Compulsory voting does not necessarily guarantee 100% turnout rates, however, though they still see higher rates than countries which do not require it. Argentina has instated compulsory voting laws, but only sees about 76% voter turnout. Australia sees around 91% and Singapore sees about 94%. These numbers may also be indicative of higher turnout for major elections, but may not reflect engagement in local or regional elections. They are still considerably higher than in the United States, which typically sees about 65% of its citizens turnout to vote in major elections. In the 2016 presidential election, 60% of the eligible voting population of the United States cast a vote; in 2018, a staggering 47.5% participated in the midterms, compared to 37% in 2014 and 41% in 2010, the years of other midterm elections. To look through the stats for voter turnout for other countries, you can visit the website for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and explore the data.

Voter turnout in the United States is usually considered low, especially in years without a presidential election. The US isn’t the only developed country that faces this criticism, however. Canada’s turnout is about the same as the United States’, with an average of 68%, and though one canton in Switzerland has a compulsory voting law, for the country as a whole turnout is around 49%, one of the lowest rates in OECD countries.

Research has found that higher trust in the government and democratic process leads to greater voter turnout. Pew also found that certain issues motivate voters more than others: “health care, poverty and education are the top motivators for political engagement.” However, the issues vary among different demographic groups. While young people are generally less likely to vote, they are more motivated by the issue of freedom of speech than older generations. Sometimes, specific ballot measures can influence voter turnout: in the UK, the Brexit vote resulted in a 72% turnout, slightly higher than the average of 69%. Meanwhile, in Macedonia in September 2018, voters chose to stay away from the polls because of the proposed name change for the country. The name change required at least 50% voter participation, and opponents to the name change advocated not voting at all rather than voting against the measure.

Younger generations are also more likely to participate in political discussions online, which shows that a move towards digitizing the political and voting processes may not be too far off. In fact, in Estonia, the option to vote online is becoming increasingly popular. According to the country’s website detailing their “digital society,” online voting has soared from 1.9% in 2005 to 30.5% in 2015. Estonia is the only country to fully adopt online voting, but other countries, such as Australia, Canada, and Norway, have looked into pursuing it as an option in the future.

For the most part, most countries vote in person at the voting booth, and while countries may alter the length of election periods and the equipment used in voting from election to election, it still tends to have many of the same features. In 2005, the American Bar Association looked at a few different methods of voting: in 1989 in Namibia, voters marked an X on ballots using ink on their fingers; in Bulgaria, rather than marking a ballot, voters pick from any number of sheets of paper representing specific political parties and put it in a ballot box; and in Ireland, they designate their top three candidates by numbering them 1, 2, and 3. Some countries use electronic voting machines, such as India, while others rely on paper ballots, such as Zimbabwe. In the United States, it varies from state to state and even county to county, so the idea that one entire country might use the same voting method is actually pretty foreign to Americans.

Have you experienced an election day in another country, or do you know how voting works in a place we haven’t mentioned here? Start the discussion over on our Facebook page, and let us know about civic engagement in your town, state, or country.

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